“Hey, Dima! Do you want to go around the Golden Ring with us on our break?!?”
“… I have no clue what that is… but sure!”
This was the question that led to a very interesting adventure of mine while I was studying in St. Petersburg. In the beginning of May, there are many recognized holidays in Russia, meaning we had a very interesting class schedule our last few weeks of our semester. Needless to say, a couple of friends and I wanted travel one last time before we had to leave St. Petersburg for good. We had a decent sized break of around six days and didn’t know exactly what to do with it. That was until two of my friends came up to me one day after class and suggested we travel around the Golden Ring.
Needless to say, I (like most people who go to Russia) had absolutely no clue what in the world the Golden Ring was, but my friends promised me that it was going to be a distinctly Russian experience.
We had several classmates and friends who decided to go to westward to other countries like the Czech Republic, France, Germany, etc. for our break, but we wanted to find something that was particularly unique to Russia, something we couldn’t find somewhere else. I can’t say that I was disappointed in any way.
The Golden Ring consists of [NINE?] different historical small towns and villages around Moscow with many museums, cathedrals, monasteries, and orthodox churches that tell the rich history of Russia from a religious perspective. When I explained our travel plans with some St. Petersburg locals, they explained how most people hired a tour guide to go with them from town to town… we took a less traditional route and ventured the route on our own.
ST. PETERSBURG -> MOSCOW -> SERGEIV-POSAD -> PERESLAVL-ZALESSKIY -> YAROSLAVL à KOSTROMA -> VLADIMIR -> SUZDAL -> VLADIMIR -> MOSCOW -> ST. PETERSBURG
To go from all of these cities, we took a combination of high speed trains, taxis, busses, marshrutkas, and soviet sleeper trains (Let me tell you, these were an experience…).
As a person that is not religiously affiliated, I extremely enjoyed the trip. I was able to see first-hand a lot of things that I had learned in my sociology/political science and my art history classes in St. Petersburg. Outside of going to museums, we were also able to see a more authentic Russia.
Despite St. Petersburg being an absolutely beautiful city with a rich and complex history, it is still unarguably a European city. Just as Peter the Great intended, it has become a Window to the West. Traveling the Golden Ring let us escape western-esque Russia and get a better understanding of what Russia before major European influence. We traveled through villages, went to church upon church upon church, and drove right through small towns that didn’t even have a stop light.
Of course, there were times where we got frustrated, because transportation proved to be difficult, or we simply were exhausted from our non-stop traveling, but it really was a cool and unique experience. We even made a friend with a Chinese student in our hostel in Vladimir who was studying at Moscow State University.
Personally, I have to say that my favorite city to visit was Yaraslavl. It was a beautiful city along a river, with a lot of open green space, and people enjoyed their time outside. One of my favorite experiences happened when my friend Ellie and I “almost melted in a banya” (a Russian sauna). At least that’s how we like to tell the story. On one of our nights, we rented a room at a dacha (a Russian summer house) in a village, right smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Now when we say we nearly melted in a banya, we aren’t entirely far from the truth… However, it wasn’t an orthodox banya experience. Typically, Russian banyas are full of steam, you are lightly hit with a special kind of branch, and then you are supposed to jump in a freezing lake. Well… we did it all wrong. The banya ended up not being steamy at all. When Ellie and I walked into the banya it was a little over 100ºC – yes, I said that right… 100ºC – which is right around 212ºF. For those of you who don’t know, water begins to evaporate at that temperature, so many it is more accurate to say that we almost vaporized instead of melted! To not become a joint human cloud, we ended up pouring cold water on ourselves for the entire hour we were in the banya. In hindsight, we realize we did it all wrong, but now it is a wonderful story to tell. We now also have an excellent excuse to go back to Russia and try to get a more.